Cheesy, Cornbread-ish Polenta Meets Zesty Kale, Forgets Main Dish

As a food blogger (since 2010), I've kept a keen eye on recipes in cookbooks, websites, papers, and food magazines. One thing I often found missing in all those recipes was the attention to the most important part of a meal, in my opinion—the sides. These vegetables, grains, pulses, and legumes have so much potential; you can enhance or change the flavor and texture of a side like zucchini more than you can with pork or beef. Instead of letting a centerpiece inform the sides, what if we worked in the other direction?

Frustrated by these omissions, I wrote a cookbook that addressed this question. My recipes in On the Side presents sides as a starting point for meal planning, the food to fixate on making before you think about the rest. (Okay, but because old habits die hard, so there's a directory in the back for those who've already chosen their centerpiece.)

In fact, the concept of vegetable sides next to centerpiece of protein is a fairly western one; in Britain, where I'm from, we call it "meat and two veg." But if you look at mealtimes in India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, the vegetables often have equal billing with meat or fish (if there’s meat or fish at all). No element of the meal is of less importance.

1 side + 1 side = 1 meal Photo by Jenny Huang

The following side dish recipes, for example, make for a satisfying supper: Roman rosemary polenta, baked and cut into squares, needs only a mound of orange and chili-flecked cavolo nero to go with it. First, the cheesy, herby polenta is cooled to set, then broiled or baked with more cheese on top. In some ways, it becomes the centerpiece—like mac n' cheese or another pasta—but then kale’s got so much going on that it doesn’t take a step back and sit quietly on the plate. Each mouthful is interesting, invigorating, even though there are only two items. It’s really good match for late winter, as the polenta is comforting and the kale is verdant.

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Could you add a pork chop, roast chicken, or a beef stew? Yes, but you really don’t have to.

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Ed Smith is a food writer based in London. He's the author of On the Side; a sourcebook of inspiring side dishes (Bloomsbury 2017/18), and the food blog www.RocketandSquash.com